Pittsburgh’s Ames Harding is using AI to dazzle the crowd at his shows | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh’s Ames Harding is using AI to dazzle the crowd at his shows

click to enlarge Pittsburgh’s Ames Harding is using AI to dazzle the crowd at his shows
Photo: Courtesy of Ames Harding & the Mirage

The video begins with parallel lines like a field of crops: the left side blue, the right side violet. As the music begins, the lines distort, forming two eye-shaped spheres that pulse with the rhythm. Digital dots get pinballed by the reverberations.

This psychedelic visual is the first iteration of Pittsburgh musician Ames Harding’s attempt to wield the power of art and technology to craft the next generation of live music.

Harding is collaborating with a local robotics and computer science expert to craft concerts that harness the power of artificial intelligence. The project is in the early stages, but it represents one of the first attempts locally to incorporate generative AI into live shows.

For the music industry, AI has been the subject of excitement and controversy. In April, a song surfaced on social media that claimed to use AI-generated versions of Drake and The Weeknd, two of the industry’s most popular voices. The song quickly racked up millions of listens before it was taken down over concerns about intellectual property.

While many creatives lament generative AI as a harbinger of doom, others, like Harding, see in the technology a way to expand and improve their craft — if they use it wisely.

“The next generation of musicians is not going to be AI musicians. It’s going to be musicians aided by AI,” Harding tells Pittsburgh City Paper.

What started as a solo project grew into a four-piece band, Ames Harding and the Mirage, known for making dreamy, genre-bending songs. The band has built a steady following and performed everywhere from college house shows to Mr. Smalls in Millvale. But in recent months, Harding revisited his self-named solo project to pursue a more experimental venture centered around creating an immersive, multimedia experience for his audience. The goal is to put the focus on the music and the visuals, not necessarily the performer.

“The solo project isn’t really about me,” he said. “It’s about creating a visual world around the music.”

click to enlarge Pittsburgh’s Ames Harding is using AI to dazzle the crowd at his shows
Photo: Michael Paul
Ames Harding

A World of Influences

As a kid, Harding showed an affinity for science. He went to math camp and took the SATs at 14. When he started at Pomona College in California, he went in as a physics major.

“That was my path for a long time,” he said.

But Harding also had a fascination with music. His mother worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, which took the family across the globe. Harding was born in Guatemala, spent middle school in Egypt, and high school in India. The sounds of those various places added color to his musical palette. He remembers waking up at 5 a.m. to the Islamic daily prayer calls in Cairo and listening to the sonorous chants reverberating through loudspeakers.

Experiences like these helped to cultivate an international range of influences. One track he performs evokes New Orleans jazz; another hints of Latin rhythms. It’s fitting that the cover art for many of Harding’s releases, like his album Dance of the Red Flower, are collages of images.

Harding is constantly looking for ways to push the boundaries of music. In recent years, as AI technology has grown more advanced, he’s felt a renewed interest, an obsession even, with the intersection between the quantitative world of math and the qualitative world of art.

“I wasn’t worried about Siri taking my job or that kind of thing, but I think what really caught me by surprise was the image generation,” Harding says.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh’s Ames Harding is using AI to dazzle the crowd at his shows
"Koalas playing checkers" by DALL-E

DALL-E, created by the same company behind ChatGPT, blends languages and images, often with surreal results (the name itself is a play on Salvador Dalí, the Spanish artist known for bizarre amalgamations of images). Visual possibilities flourished. If someone wanted to see a house in the shape of a giraffe, or two koalas playing checkers, they just type it into a search bar and a digital image appears with a striking resemblance to a photograph.

“As I do when I get excited about something, I just talk about it with everyone,” Harding says of the technology.

One of those people is Dr. Jonathan D. Taylor (he goes by JD), a local tech entrepreneur who specializes in robotics and AI.

“But on the side, he’s a bit of a hippie,” Harding tells City Paper.

Taylor got a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and has worked for several companies with a focus on robotics. As he ascended the ranks, he found himself missing the creative energy and nonlinear thinking that came with making art.

“The things that really create innovation are not what you find in the tech world. It seems counterintuitive,” he says. “You get a lot of pretty conservative people. It’s what is taught in an engineering background.”

He wanted to be around people who weren’t so confident they had the right answers and who wanted to embark on new and strange ventures. Artists tend to fit that description. In the past, he’s helped with art installations at Redfish Bowl in Lawrenceville. He made a point that such ventures are hobbies separate from his professional work.

After his conversation with Harding, Taylor took one of his songs and put it through a computational fluid dynamics simulation, which he said engineers use to design things like wind turbines. He created an AI training loop that took those elements and generated randomized visuals based on the harmonies and percussion, like DALL-E creating novel images from a supply of pictures. The process kept generating visuals that Taylor could judge as good or bad until he achieved a product that looked pleasing. What emerged was the set of morphing blue and violet lines.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh’s Ames Harding is using AI to dazzle the crowd at his shows
Photo: Mark Talkington

Eventually, he wants to devise a way to implement AI in real-time during Harding’s performances so that everyone in the crowd is affecting the visuals. One idea is to incorporate a kind of “vibe check meter” that would detect changes in mood and body movement. The visual elements would learn from the audience and make changes according to their reactions.

“Though laser light displays and similar tech advances have been used for decades to produce amazing experiences, there has been no one yet, to my knowledge, that takes input and learns from the audiences in real-time to make the concert even more unique and engaging,” Taylor says.

As anyone who has been to a concert understands, a good show feels like a journey. A person follows the highs and lows of the music, moments of joy and of sadness that culminate in what Taylor described as a feeling of transcendence.

“Hopefully what we end up with at the end of this project is to capture that in a bottle,” he says. “We want to make things that make these shows better, more unique, more memorable, and they just continue to get better over time.”

Double-edged sword

While AI presents opportunities, it also poses problems. On May 1, Dr. Geoffrey Hinton, who designed machine learning algorithms for Google, quit his job to give him the freedom to speak out against the very technology he helped create.

Regarded as the “godfather of AI,” Hinton grew wary of the speed at which companies were developing products like DALL-E and ChatGPT. His most pressing concern is that they will flood the digital world with fake images, videos and text so that the average person won’t be able to distinguish what is true. From 1982-87, Hinton taught at CMU, but he left for Canada because at the time, most AI research in the United States was funded by the defense department, and he opposed the idea of artificial intelligence in combat.

In the realm of music, AI presents thorny questions over copyright infringement. Who has rights to that AI-generated Drake-Weeknd mashup? What does the blurring of real versus fake do to the value of music and art?

The trouble with such fast-changing technology is crafting policies and regulations that can keep up. The realms of law and politics travel much slower, and for good reason, than that of business. Hinton joined the ranks of critics urging companies to slow down and tread with caution.

But as Taylor argued, the technology already exists, and rather than shy away from it, he and Harding want to find ways to harness the power of AI toward meaningful ends.

Taylor couldn’t say for certain when the technology will be ready, but he’s trying to have some form of generative AI ready for Harding’s next performance on Fri., May 26 at Cattivo, where he’ll be opening for Animal Scream.

“The point of this is we don’t know what the end product is going to be,” he said. “That’s the magic of it.”